from master educator Parker Palmer.  This is a follow-on to my diary of late last night, Lessons from a master educator.

from page 10 of The Courage to Teach:  

This book builds on a simple premise:  good teaching cannot be reduced to technique:  good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. . . in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my self-hood - and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.

I suspect that few of the self-identified "reformers' in education would agree with those words - certainly the policies they advocate would exclude such an approach.  Yet excluding that approach also excludes most of the teachers who have the most profound effect upon their students, and thereby diminishes their educational experience.

I invite you to keep reading for some more of Palmer's thought, and additional commentary by this teacher.

    Many of us became teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people learn.  But many of us lose heart as the years of teaching go by.  How can we take heart in teaching once more so that we can, as good teachers always do, give heart to our students?
   We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.  I need not reveal personal secrets to feel naked in front of a class.  I need only parse a sentence or work a proof on the board while my students doze off or pass notes.  No matter how technical my subject may be, the things I teach are things I care about - and what I care about helps define my selfhood.
    Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. . . .a good teacher must stand where the personal and public meet. . . . As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, ridicule.
    To reduce our vulnerability, we disconnect from students, from subjects, even from our selves.  We build a wall between inn er truth and outer performance, and we play-act the teacher's part . . . .  We distance ourselves from students and subject to minimize the danger - forgetting that distance makes life more dangerous still by isolating the self.

Thos words from p. 17 are part of an exploration titled "When Teachers Lose Heart."  I would argue that when we do, we cease to be as effective for our students.  If the policies we advocate push us in the direction of losing hear, then we are merely going through the motions, thereby depriving our students of the possibility of real connection with the material, except for those whose passion for the subject is already so strong it can withstand even the burnt-out case play-acting the role of teacher.

Palmer also advocates the notion of a teacher within.  Here are some selected words from p. 31 on the importance of that subject:  

    I realize that the idea of a teacher within strikes some academics as a romantic fantasy, but I cannot fathom why.  If there is no such reality in our lives, centuries of Western discourse about the aims of education become so much lip-flapping.  In classical understanding, education is the attempt to "lead out" from within the self a core of wisdom that has the power to resists falsehood and live in the light of truth, not by external norms but by reasoned and reflective self-determination.  The inward teachers is the living core of our lives that is addressed and evoked by any education worthy of the name.
    Perhaps the idea is unpopular because it compels us to look at two of the most difficult truths about teaching.  The first is that what we teach will never "take" unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students' lives, with our students' inward teachers.  . . .  The second truth is even more daunting:  we can speak to the teacher within our students only when we are on speaking terms with the teacher within ourselves.

Perhaps I can offer an explanation of that last point.  I teach adolescents.  I have taught from grades 7 through 12.  Adolescents have remarkable bullshit detectors.  If a teacher is not being genuine with them, they inevitably will wonder why they should be genuine with the teacher.  If the teacher does not trust them enough to be vulnerable, why should they trust her and take the risk of being wrong, of doing the kinds of exploration necessary to invoke truly deep and meaningful learning.  This applies in every domain - we learn and deepen our understanding by our willingness to take risks, and we will in general only do so in an environment and under the supervision of a person where we have trust that we will not be harmed nor ridiculed nor belittled when we make the inevitable mistakes.  Or better than saying supervised, when we see the person leading us modeling the mind set and the trust that we must have in order to benefit from our learning experience.

We need to respect our students.  As Palmer writes on p. 45:  

Students are marginalized people in our society,  The silence that we face in our classroom is the silence that has always been adopted by people on the margin - people who have reason to fear those in power and have learned that there is safety in not speaking.

 A key part of our tasks as teachers is to provide an environment in which the voices of students are not marginalized.  Sometimes it requires us to wait, to let the painfulness of the silence be overcome by the trust we place that the students will have a voice.  We have to listen to what has not yet been said, as Palmer explains thusly on the following page:  

What does it mean to listen to a voice before it is spoken?  It means making space for the other, being aware of the other, paying attention to the other, honoring the other.  It means not rushing to fill our students' silences with fearful speech of our own and not trying to coerce them into saying the things that we want to hear.  It means entering empathetically into the students' world so that he or she perceives you as someone who has the promise of being able to hear another person's truth

On page 50 Palmer offers a succinct explanation of what all this means:  

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.

 As a teacher I understand this to mean that my own worth and self-value comes not from the performance of my students on external measures of learned material, be they provided by testing companies or by me, but rather by how much they grow and our enlivened by the experience we share in the classroom.  I am enriched, and also very much challenged, by that experience.  If each student in a classroom of 30 experiences that growth on some level, I experience the sum of their experiences, which benefits me even more.  

For me it is simple.  Teaching involves relationship.  Healthy relationship involves vulnerability.  Unless I am willing to be vulnerable I cannot expect my students to accept the real challenges of learning, challenges which require vulnerability - the willingness to be wrong is an essential prerequisite to meaningful learning and growth.

I have to honor the truth of their lives, and encourage them to do the same - honoring their own truths.  

If this seems a very different notion of teaching than what is implied by the idea that we would measure teacher "effectiveness" by some measure of student performance on tests, perhaps you begin to understand why so many good and dedicated teachers so strongly oppose much of our current notion of "reform."  We are so concerned with "objective" measurement that we avoid the reality that real learning and real growth is very much a subjective process, depending upon the individual student, who will learn far more and much more deeply when the subject at hand is connected with her reality, his life.

I am a teacher.  That is my proud statement. I am also a life-long student - not merely of the subjects for which I bear official instructional responsibility, but of the many aspects of life.  That makes me vulnerable, because I have to admit upfront and often how little I truly "know" and how much I still must explore.  

I know of no other book that so thoroughly explores what I think the real meaning of teaching is.  The Courage to Teach:  Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life is a profound work, one to which I return on a regular basis, not merely on an occasion like to day, where I will finally encounter its author face to face.  

Whether or not you view yourself as a teacher, all of us have teaching roles - as parents, as supervisors, as coaches.  I think many who do not define themselves as teachers might benefit from reading the book.  If nothing else, it might help some better understand why so many teachers who are regularly singled out by their present and former students as influential feel the way we do about the false and destructive destination of our current educational policy.


Originally posted to teacherken on Sat Nov 13, 2010 at 03:13 AM PST.

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